Eye surgeon Rand Paul is reportedly considering a presidential run. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Rand would not run if his dad’s running,” said Jesse Benton, political director for Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). “But if his dad doesn’t run and he fails to see a viable candidate or candidates in the Republican field, that are serious about debt spending and the budget crisis facing our country, then he will be very tempted to weigh his options.”

He’s been visiting the key primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, giving speeches and meeting with local Republican leaders — a largely under the radar effort because, until now, no one thought the newly elected senator would seriously consider the race.

Like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), another potential dark horse candidate, Paul says his main concern at the moment is to shape the debate and making sure the tea party point of view is included.

But with his advisers floating the possibility of a bid publicly, it’s worth examining whether Paul — Rand, that is — would be a factor if he ran.

While he raised impressive amounts of online money for his Senate bid, Paul does not have Bachmann’s eyepopping fundraising prowess or large national network of supporters. And, while his father has impressive national name ID, it’s unclear how well-known Paul the younger is outside of tea party and Republican circles.

That said, there are clear similarities between Rand and Ron Paul that might allow the younger man to assume much of his father’s avid following — largely organized through a group known as the Campaign for Liberty — if the older Paul decided not to run in 2012.

Paul, like his father, is not afraid to break from mainstream Republican thought. He has called for ending all aid to Israel. He’s against the intervention in Libya. He’s called for $500 billion in budget cuts, far more than his party’s leadership has proposed. He opposed an end to secret holds in the Senate and was the lone vote against a measure that would make it a federal crime to aim a handheld laser pointer at an aircraft.

Paul’s worldview created problems for him soon after he won the Republican Senate primary last spring when he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that private businesses should be allowed to discriminate based on race.(Paul later said he would not support any effort to repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

There were some other problems during his Senate campaign that would come up in a national race — namely, allegations that he kidnapped a fellow student and forced her to smoke pot and worship an ‘Aqua Buddha’ during a college prank. An ad from Democrat Jack Conway on the incident backfired, but Paul wouldn’t be so lucky in a high-intensity presidential campaign.

Yet on some key issues, Paul is relatively moderate. He says Afghanistan troop levels are up to the president, not Congress. He’s not for drug legalization, although he opposes the war on drugs. He wants to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open.

Trevor Lyman, the activist behind Ron Paul’s successful online ‘moneybomb’ fundraisers — one-day online cash collection efforts -- in 2008, said he would “absolutely” support a Rand Paul presidential campaign. He acknowledged that some libertarians might find Paul too mainstream, but for him, if Ron Paul bows out, “Rand is a pretty good second choice.”

Of course, Ron Paul’s fervent fan base and national prominence was never enough to get him above single-digits in national support in 2008. Despite collecting better than $50 million from his devoted followers, he never won a single caucus or primary.

To be a real factor in 2012 (or ever) then, Rand Paul would need to find a way to expand beyond his father’s active but not terribly large base of support.

Many allies of both Pauls argue that Rand could pull it off. “He’s younger, he’s far more articulate, I think he’s more balanced than his father, he understands current events,”said Bill Stone, former chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party. “Rand knows how to stand for principle without looking nutty.” John Zambenini , who ran communications in Iowa for Ron Paul, described his son as “more palatable.”

Since the ‘Aqua Buddha’ incident came out, Paul has managed to keep himself out of trouble, explaining his more libertarian positions to Republicans and his more Republican positions to libertarians. Unlike his father, he has shown his ability to run a well-organized statewide campaign.

All that said, Paul would be a major league longshot if he ran in 2012. While both Pauls seem to revel in charging up impossibly high hills, Rand Paul has shown a more practical side in his short political career. While a Rand Paul candidacy would draw scads of headlines, there’s no obvious (or even less-than-obvious) path to the nomination. And that means he’s likely to stay out of the race. Maybe.